The Interpreter. Ii: A Romance of the East
EARLY in the pure dawn the men came, and our boat was towed up into the Dal Lake through crystal waterways and flowery banks, the men on the path keeping step and straining at the rope until the bronze muscles stood out on their legs and backs, and shouting strong rhythmic phrases to mark the pull.
‘They shout the Wondrous Names of God — as they are called,’ said Vanna, when I asked. ‘They always do that for a timed effort. Badshāh! The Lord, the Compassionate, and so on. I don’t think there is any religion about it, but it is as natural to them as one, two, three to us. It gives a tremendous lift. Watch and see.’
It was part of the delightful strangeness that we should move to that strong music.
We moored by a low bank, under a great wood of chenar trees, and saw the little table in the wilderness set in the greenest shade, with our chairs beside it, and my pipe laid reverently upon it by Kahdra.
Across the glittering water lay, on one side, the Shalimar Garden, known to all readers of Lalla Rookh — a paradise of roses; and beyond it again the lovelier gardens of Nur-Mahal, the Light of the Palace, that imperial woman who ruled India under the weak Emperor’s name — she whose name he set thus upon his coins: ‘By order of King Jehangir, gold has a hundred splendors added to it by receiving the name of Nur-Jahan the Queen.’
Has any woman ever had a more royal homage than this most royal woman — known first as Mihr-u-Nissa, Sun of Women; later, as Nur-Mahal, Light of the Palace; and, latest, NurJahan-Begam, Queen, Light of the World?
Here, in these gardens, she had lived — had seen the snow mountains change from the silver of dawn to the illimitable rose of sunset. The life, the color beat insistently upon my brain. They built a world of magic where every moment was pure gold. Surely — surely to Vanna it must be the samel! I believed in my very soul that she who gave and shared such joy could not be utterly apart from me.
Just then, in the sunset, she was sitting on deck, singing under her breath and looking absently away to the Gardens across the Lake. I could hear the words here and there, and knew them.
Where are you now — who lies beneath your spell?
Whom do you lead on Rapture’s roadway far,
Before you agonize them in farewell?’
‘Don’t!’ I said abruptly. ‘You did that on purpose !’
‘What?’ she asked in surprise. ‘That is the song everyone remembers here. Poor Laurence Hope! How she knew and loved my India! What are you grumbling at?’
Her smile stung me.
‘Never mind,’ I said morosely. ‘You don’t understand. You never will.’
And yet I believed sometimes that she would — that time was on my side. When Kahdra and I pulled her across to Nur-Mahal’s garden next day, how could I not believe it, her face was so full of joy as she looked at me for sympathy?
We were pulling in among the reeds and the huge carved leaves of the waterplants, and the snake-headed buds lolling upon them with the slippery half-sinister look that water-flowers have, as if their cold secret life belonged to the hidden water-world and not to ours. But now the boat was touching the little wooden steps.
Oh, beautiful, most beautiful — the green lawns, shaded with huge pyramids of the chenar trees; the terraced gardens where the marble steps climbed from one to the other, and the mountain streams flashed singing and shining down the carved marble slopes. Even in the glory of sunshine, the passing of all fair things was present with me as I saw the empty shell that had held the Pearl of Empire, and her roses that still bloom, her waters that still sing for others.
The spray of a hundred fountains was misty diamond-dust in the warm air laden with the scent of myriad flowers.
Kahdra followed us everywhere, singing his little tuneless, happy song. The world brimmed with beauty and joy. And we were together.
Words broke from me: —
‘Vanna, let it be forever! Let us live here. I’11 give up all the world for this and you.’
‘But you see,’ she said delicately, ‘it would be “giving up.”You use the right word. It is not your life. It is a lovely holiday, no more. You would weary of it. You would want the city life and your own kind.’
I protested with all my soul. But she went on: —
‘No. Indeed, I will say frankly that it would be lowering yourself to live a lotos-eating life among my people. It is a life with which you have no tie. A Westerner who lives like that steps down; he loses his birthright, just as an Easterner does who Europeanizes himself. He cannot live your life, nor you his. If you had work here, it would be different. No — six or eight weeks more; then go away and forget it.’
I turned from her. The serpent was in Paradise. When is he absent?
On one of the terraces a man was beating a tom-tom, and veiled women listened, grouped about him in brilliant colors.
‘ Is n’t that all India?' she said; ‘ that dull reiterated sound? It half stupefies, half maddens. Once, at Darjiling, I saw the Llamas’ Devil Dance: the soul, a white-faced child with eyes unnaturally enlarged, fleeing among a rabble of devils — the evil passions. It fled wildly here and there, and every way was blocked. The child fell on its knees, screaming dumbly — you could see the despair in the starting eyes; but all was drowned in the thunder of Thibetan drums. No mercy — no escape. Horrible!’
‘Even in Europe the drum is awful,’ I said. ‘Do you remember in the French Revolution, how they drowned the victims’ voices in a thunder-roll of drums? ’
‘I shall always see the face of the child, hunted down to hell, falling on its knees, and screaming without a sound, when I hear the drum. But listen— a flute! Now, if that were the Flute of Krishna, you would have to follow. Let us come!’
I could hear nothing of it; but she insisted, and we followed the music, inaudible to me, up the slopes of the garden that is the foot-hill of the mighty mountain of Mahadeo; and still I could hear nothing.
Vanna told me strange stories of the Apollo of India, whom all hearts most adore, even as the herd-girls adored him in his golden youth by Jumna River and in the pastures of Brindāban.
Next day we were climbing the hill to the ruins where the evil magician brought the King’s daughter nightly to his will, flying low under a golden moon. Vanna took my arm, and I pulled her, laughing, up the steepest flowery slopes until we reached the height; and, lo! the arched windows were eyeless, a lonely breeze was blowing through the cloisters, and the beautiful yellowish stone arches supported nothing and were but frames for the blue of far lake and mountain and the divine sky. We climbed the broken stairs, where the lizards went by like flashes; and had I the tongues of men and angels, I could not tell the wonder that lay before us — the whole wide valley of Kashmir in summer glory, with its scented breeze singing, singing above it.
We sat on the crushed aromatic herbs and among the wild roses, and looked down.
‘To think,’ she said, ‘that we might have died and never seen it!’
There followed a long silence. I thought she was tired and would not break it. Suddenly she spoke in a strange voice, low and toneless: —
‘The story of this place. She was the Princess Padmavati, and her home was in Ayodhya. When she woke and found herself here by the lake, she was so terrified that she flung herself in and was drowned. They held her back, but she died.’
‘How do you know?’
‘Because a wandering monk came to the abbey of Tahk-i-Bahi near Peshawar, and told Vasettha the Abbot.’
I had nearly spoiled it all by an exclamation, but I held myself back. I saw she was dreaming awake and was unconscious of what she said.
‘The Abbot said, “Do not describe her. What talk is this for holy men? The young monks must not hear. Some of them have never seen a woman. Should a monk speak of such toys?” But the wanderer disobeyed and spoke, and there was a great tumult, and the monks threw him out at the command of the young Abbot, and he wandered down to Peshawar; and it was he later — the evil one! — that brought his sister, Lilavanti the Dancer, to Peshawar, and the Abbot fell into her snare. That was his revenge!’
Her face was fixed and strange; for a moment her cheeks looked hollow, her eyes dim and grief-worn. What was she seeing? what remembering? Was it a story — a memory? What was it?
‘Men have said so; but for it he surrendered the Peace. Do not speak of her accursed beauty.’
Her voice died away to a drowsy murmur; her head dropped on my shoulder; and for the mere delight of contact I sat still and scarcely breathed, praying that she might speak again. But the good minute was gone. She drew one or two deep breaths, and sat up with a bewildered look, which quickly passed, and left only a painful knitting of the brows.
‘I was quite sleepy for a minute. The climb was so strenuous. Hark — I hear the Flute of Krishna again.’
Again I could hear nothing, but she said it was sounding from the trees at the base of the hill. Later, when we climbed down, I found she was right — that a peasant lad, dark and amazingly beautiful, as these Kashmiris often are, was playing on the Flute to a girl at his feet, looking up at him with rapt eyes. He flung Vanna a flower as we passed. She caught it and put it in her bosom. A singular blossom, three petals of purest white, set against three green leaves of purest green; and lower down the stem the three green leaves were repeated. It was still in her bosom after dinner, and I looked at it more closely.
‘That is a curious flower,’ I said. ‘Three and three and three. Nine. That makes the mystic number. I never saw a purer white. What is it?’
‘Of course it is mystic,’ she said seriously. ‘It is the Ninefold flower. You saw who gave it?’
‘That peasant lad.’
‘You will see more some day. Some might not even have seen that.’
‘Does it grow here?’
‘This is the first I have seen. It is said to grow only where the gods walk. Do you know that throughout all India Kashmir is said to be holy ground? It was called long ago the land of the Gods, and of strange, but not evil, sorceries. Great marvels were seen here.’
I felt that the labyrinthine enchantments of that enchanted land were closing about me — a slender web, gray, almost impalpable, finer than fairy silk, was winding itself about my feet. My eyes were opening to things I had not dreamed. She saw my thought.
‘But you could not have seen even that much of him in Peshawar. You did not know then.’
’He was not there,’ I answered, falling half-unconsciously into her tone.
‘He is always there — everywhere; and when he plays, all who hear must follow. He was the Pied Piper in Hamelin; he was Pan in Hellas. You will hear his wild fluting in many strange places when you know how to listen. When one has seen him, the rest comes soon. And then you will follow.’
‘Not away from you, Vanna.’
‘From the marriage feast, from the Table of the Lord!’ she said, smiling strangely. ‘The man who wrote that spoke of another call, but it is the same — Krishna or Christ. When we hear the music, we follow. And we may lose or gain heaven.’
It might have been her compelling personality, it might have been the marvels of beauty about me, but I knew well that I had entered at some mystic gate. My talk with Vanna grew less personal and more introspective. I felt the touch of her finger-tips leading me along the ways of Quiet: my feet brushed a shining dew. Once, in the twilight under the chenar trees, I saw a white gleaming and thought it a swiftly passing Being; but when in haste I gained the tree, I found there only a Ninefold flower, white as a spirit in the evening calm. I would not gather it, but told Vanna what I had seen.
‘You nearly saw,’ she said. ‘She passed so quickly. It was the Snowy One, Umā, the Daughter of the Himalaya. That mountain is the mountain of her lord — Shiva. It is natural she should be here. I saw her last night leaning over the height — her chin pillowed on her folded arms, with a low star in the mists of her hair. Her eyes were like lakes of blue darkness, vast and wonderful. She is the Mystic Mother of India. You will see soon. You could not have seen the flower until now.’
‘Do you know,’ she added, ‘that in the mountains there are poppies clear blue — blue as turquoise? We will go up into the heights and find them.’
And next moment she was planning the camping details — the men, the ponies — with a practical zest that seemed to relegate the occult to the absurd. Yet the very next day came a wonderful happening.
The sun was just setting and, as it were, suddenly the purple glooms banked up heavy with thunder. The sky was black with fury, the earth passive with dread. I never saw such lightning — it was continuous and tore in zigzag flashes down the mountains, literally like rents in the substance of the world’s fabric. And the thunder roared up in the mountain gorges with shattering echoes. Then fell the rain, and the whole lake seemed to rise to meet it.
We were standing by the cabin window, and she suddenly caught my hand, and I saw in a light of their own two dancing figures on the tormented water before us. Wild in the tumult, embodied delight, with arms tossed violently above their heads, and feet flung up behind them, skimming the waves like sea-gulls, they passed. I saw the fierce aerial faces and their unhuman glee as they fled by; and she dropped my hand and they were gone.
Slowly the storm lessened, and in the west the clouds tore raggedly asunder and a flood of livid yellow light poured down upon the lake — an awful light that struck it into an abyss of fire. Then, as if at a word of command, two glorious rainbows sprang across the water with the mountains for their piers, each with its proper colors chorded. They made a Bridge of Dread that stood out radiant against the background of storm — the Twilight of the Gods, and the doomed Gods marching forth to the last fight. And the thunder growled sullenly away into the recesses of the hill, and the terrible rainbows faded until the stars came quietly out, and it was a still night. But I had seen that what is our dread is the joy of the spirits of the Mighty Mother; and though the vision faded, and I doubted what I had seen, it prepared the way for what I was yet to see.
A few days later we started on what was to be the most exquisite memory of my life. In the cool gray of a divine morning, with little rosy clouds flecking the eastern sky, we set out from Islamabad for Vernag. And this was the order of our going. She and I led the way, attended by a sais (groom), and a coolie carrying the luncheon basket. Half-way we would stop in some green dell, or by some rushing stream, and there rest and eat our little meal, while the rest of the cavalcade passed on to the appointed camping-place; and in the late afternoon we would follow, riding slowly, and find the tents pitched.
It was strange that, later, much of what she said escaped me. Some I noted down at the time, but there were hints, shadows of lovelier things beyond, that eluded all but the fringes of memory when I tried to piece them together and make a coherence of a living wonder. For that reason, the best things cannot be told in this history. It is only the cruder, grosser matters that words will hold. The half-touchings — vanishing looks, breaths — O God, I know them, but cannot tell!
In the smaller villages, the headman came often to greet us and make us welcome, bearing on a flat dish a little offering of cakes and fruit, the produce of the place. One evening a headman so approached, stately in white robes and turban, attended by a little lad who carried the patriarchal gift beside him. Our tents were pitched under a glorious walnut tree, with a running stream at our feet.
Vanna, of course, was the interpreter, and I called her from her tent as the man stood salaaming before me. It was strange that, when she came, dressed in white, he stopped in his salutation, and gazed at her in what, I thought, was silent wonder. She spoke earnestly to him, standing before him with clasped hands — almost, I could think, in the attitude of a suppliant.
The man listened gravely, with only an interjection now and again; and once he turned and looked curiously at me. Then, in his turn, he spoke, evidently making some announcement, which she received with bowed head; and when he turned to go with a grave salute, she performed a very singular ceremony, walking slowly round him three times, keeping him always on the right. He repaid it with the usual salaam and greeting of peace, which he bestowed also on me, and then departed in deep meditation, his eyes fixed on the ground.
I ventured to ask what it all meant, and she looked thoughtfully at me before replying.
‘It was a strange thing. I fear you will not altogether understand, but I will tell you what I can. That man, though living here among Mohammedans, is a Brahmin from Benares, and, what is very rare in India, a Buddhist. And when he saw me, he believed he remembered me in a former birth. The ceremony you saw me perform is one of honor in India. It was his due.’
‘Did you remember him?’ I knew my voice was incredulous.
‘Very well. He has changed little, but is further on the upward path. I saw him with dread, for he holds the memory of a great wrong I did. Yet he told me a thing that has filled my heart with joy.'
‘Vanna — what is it?’
She had a clear, uplifted look which startled me. There was suddenly a chill air blowing between us.
‘I must not tell you yet, but you will know soon. He was a good man. I am glad we have met.’
She buried herself in writing in a small book that I had noticed and longed to look into, and no more was said.
We struck camp next day and trekked on toward Vernag — a rough march, but one of great beauty, beneath the shade of forest trees, garlanded with pale roses that climbed from bough to bough and tossed triumphant wreaths into the uppermost blue. In the afternoon thunder was flapping its wings far off in the mountains, and a little rain fell while we were lunching under a big tree. I was considering anxiously how to shelter Vanna, when a farmer invited us to his house — a scene of Biblical hospitality that delighted us both. He led us up some breakneck little stairs to a large bare room, open to the clean air all around the roof, and with a kind of rough enclosure on the wooden floor, where the family slept at night. There he opened our basket, and then, with anxious care, hung clothes and rough draperies about us, that our meal might be unwatched by one or two friends who had followed us in with breathless interest.
Still further to entertain us, a great rarity was brought out and laid at Vanna’s feet, as something we might like to watch — a curious bird in a cage, with brightly barred wings and a singular cry. She fed it with a fruit, and it fluttered to her hand. Just so Abraham might have welcomed his guests; and when we left, with words of deepest gratitude, our host made the beautiful obeisance of touching his forehead with joined hands as he bowed.
To me the whole incident had an extraordinary beauty, and ennobled both host and guest. But we met an ascending scale of beauty, so varied in its aspects that I passed from one emotion to another, and knew no sameness.
That afternoon the camp was pitched at the foot of a mighty hill, under the waving pyramids of the chenars, sweeping their green like the robes of a goddess. Near by was a half-circle of low arches falling into ruin, and as we went in among them, I beheld a wondrous sight — the huge octagonal tank made by the Mogul Emperor Jehangir to receive the waters of a mighty spring which wells from the hill and has been held sacred by Hindu and Moslem. And if loveliness can sanctify, surely it is sacred, indeed.
‘How all the Mogul Emperors loved running water! ’ said Vanna. ‘I can see them leaning over it in these carved pavilions, with delicate dark faces and pensive eyes beneath their turbans, lost in the endless reverie of the East, while liquid melody passes into their dream. It was the music they best loved.’
She was leading me into the royal garden below, where the young river flows beneath the pavilion set above and across the rush of the water.
‘I remember before I came to India,’she went on, ‘there were certain words and phrases that meant the whole East to me. It was an enchantment. The first flash picture I had was Milton’s
Dark faces with white silken turbans wreathed,
and it still is. I have thought ever since that every man should wear a turban. It dignifies the uncomeliest, and it is quite curious to see how many inches a man descends in the scale of beauty the moment he takes it off and you see only the skull-cup about which they wind it. They wind it with wonderful skill, too. I have seen a man take eighteen yards of muslin and throw it round his head with a few turns; and in five or six minutes the beautiful folds were all in order and he looked like a king. Some of the Gujars here wear black ones, and they are very effective and worth painting —the black folds and the sullen tempestuous black brows underneath.’
We sat in the pavilion for a while, looking down on the rushing water, and she spoke of Akbar, the greatest of the Moguls, and spoke with a curious personal touch, as I thought.
‘I wish you would try to write a story of him — one on more human lines than has been done yet. No one has accounted for the passionate quest of truth that was the real secret of his life. Strange in an Oriental despot if you think of it! It really can be understood only from the Buddhist belief (which, curiously, seems to have been the only one he neglected) that a mysterious Karma influenced all his thoughts. If I tell you, as a key-note for your story, that in a past life he had been a Buddhist priest, — one who had fallen away,—would that at all account to you for attempts to recover the lost Way? Try to think that out, and to write the story, not as a Western mind sees it, but pure East.’
‘That would be a great book to write if one could catch the voices of the past. But how to do that?’
‘ I will give you one day a little book that may help you. The other story I wish you would write is the story of a dancer of Peshawar. There is a connection between the two — a story of ruin and repentance.’
‘Will you tell it to me?’
‘A part. In this same book you will find much more, but not all. All cannot be told. You must imagine much; but I think your imagination will be true.’
‘Why do you think so?’
‘ Because in these few days you have learned so much. You have seen the Ninefold flower, and the rain-spirits. You will soon hear the Flute of Krishna, which none can hear who cannot dream true.’
That night I heard it. I waked, suddenly, to music, and standing in the door of my tent, in the dead silence of the night, lit only by a few low stars, I heard the poignant notes of a flute. If it had called my name, it could not have summoned me more clearly, and I followed without a thought of delay, forgetting even Vanna in the strange urgency that filled me.
The music was elusive, seeming to come first from one side, then from the other; but finally I tracked it as a bee does a flower, by the scent, to the gate of the royal garden — the pleasure place of the dead Emperors. The gate stood a jar — strange! for I had seen the custodian close it that evening. Now it stood wide, and I went in, walking noiselessly over the dewy grass. I knew, and could not tell how, that I must be noiseless. Passing as if I were guided down the course of the strong young river, I came to the pavilion that spanned it, — the place where we had stood that afternoon, — and there, to my profound amazement, I saw Vanna, leaning against a slight wooden pillar. As if she had expected me, she laid one finger on her lip, and stretching out her hand, took mine and drew me beside her as a mother might a child. And instantly I saw!
On the farther bank a young man in a strange diadem or mitre of jewels, bare-breasted and beautiful, stood among the flowering oleanders, one foot lightly crossed over the other as he stood. He was like an image of pale radiant gold, and I could have sworn that the light came from within rather than fell upon him, for the night was very dark. He held the Flute to his lips, and as I looked, I became aware that the noise of the rushing water tapered off into a murmur scarcely louder than that of a summer bee in the heart of a rose. Therefore, the music rose like a fountain of crystal drops, cold, clear, and of an entrancing sweetness, and the face above it was such that I had no power to turn my eyes away. How shall I say what it was? All that I had ever desired, dreamed, hoped, prayed, looked at me from the remote beauty of the eyes, and with the most persuasive gentleness entreated me, rather than commanded, to follow fearlessly and win. But these are words, and words shaped in the rough mould of thought cannot convey the deep desire that would have hurled me to his feet if Vanna had not held me with a firm restraining hand.
Looking up in adoring love to the dark face was a ring of woodland creatures. I thought I could distinguish the white clouded robe of a snow leopard, the soft clumsiness of a young bear, and many more; but these shifted and blurred like dream creatures — I could not be sure of them or define their numbers. The eyes of the Player looked down upon their passionate delight with careless kindness.
Dim images passed through my mind. Orpheus — no, this was no Greek. Pan — yet again, no. Where were the pipes, the goat-hoofs? The young Dionysos — no; there were strange jewels instead of his vines. And then Vanna’s voice said as if from a great distance, —
‘ Krishna — the Beloved’; and I said aloud, ‘I see!’ And, even as I said it, the whole picture blurred together like a dream, and I was alone in the pavilion and the water was foaming past me.
Had I walked in my sleep? I wondered, as I made my way back. As I gained the garden gate, before me, like a snowflake, I saw the Ninefold flower.
When I told her next day, speaking of it as a dream, she said simply, ‘They have opened the door to you. You will not need me soon.’
‘I shall always need you. You have taught me everything. I could see nothing last night until you took my hand.’
‘I was not there,’ she said smiling. ‘It was only the thought of me, and you can have that when I am very far away. I was sleeping in my tent. What you called in me then you can always call, even if I am — dead.’
‘That is a word which is beginning to have no meaning for me. You have said things to me — no, thought them — that have made me doubt if there is room in the universe for the thing we have called death.’
She smiled her sweet wise smile.
‘Where we are, death is not. Where death is, we are not. But you will understand better soon.’
Our march, curving, took us by the Mogul gardens of Achibal, and the glorious ruins of the great Temple at Martund, and so down to Bawan, with its crystal waters and that loveliest camping-ground beside them. A mighty grove of chenar trees, so huge that I felt as if we were in a great sea-cave where the air is dyed with the deep shadowy green of the inmost ocean, and the murmuring of the myriad leaves was like a sea at rest. The water ran with a great joyous rush of release from the mountain behind, but was first received in a basin full of sacred fish and reflecting a little temple of Maheshwara and one of Surya the Sun. Here, in this basin, the water lay pure and still as an ecstasy, and beside it was musing the young Brahmin priest who served the temple.
Since I had joined Vanna I had begun, with her help, to study a little Hindostani, and, with an aptitude for language, could understand here and there. I caught a word or two, as she spoke with him, that startled me, when the high-bred ascetic face turned serenely upon her, and he addressed her as ‘My sister,’ adding a sentence beyond my learning, but which she willingly translated later: ‘May He who sits above the Mysteries, have mercy upon thy rebirth.’
She said afterward, —
‘How beautiful some of these men are. It seems a different type of beauty from ours—nearer to nature and the old gods. Look at that priest: the tall, figure, the clear olive skin, the dark level brows, the long lashes that make a soft gloom about the eyes, — eyes that have the fathomless depth of a deer’s, — the proud arch of the lip. I think there is no country where aristocracy is more clearly marked than in India. The Brahmins are the aristocrats of the world. You see, it is a religious aristocracy as well. It has everything that can foster pride and exclusiveness. They spring from the Mouth of Deity. They are his word incarnate. Not many kings are of the Brahmin caste, and the Brahmins look down upon those who are not, from sovereign heights.’
And so, in marches of about ten miles a day, we came to Pahlgam on the banks of the dancing Lidar. There were now only three weeks left of the time she had promised. After a few days at Pahlgam the march would turn and bend its way back to Srinagar, and to — what? I could not believe it was to separation: in her lovely kindness she had grown so close to me that, even for the sake of friendship, I believed our paths must run together to the end; and there were moments when I could still half convince myself that I had grown as necessary to her as she was to me. No — not as necessary, for she was life and soul to me; but perhaps a part of her daily experience that she valued and would not easily part with.
That evening we were sitting outside the tents, near the camp-fire of pine logs and cones. The men, in various attitudes of rest, were lying about, and one had been telling a story, which had just ended in excitement and loud applause.
‘These are Mohammedans,’ said Vanna, ‘and it is only a story of love and fighting, like the Arabian Nights. If they had been Hindus, it might well have been of Krishna or of Rama and Sita. Their faith comes from an earlier time, and they still see visions. The Moslem is a hard practical faith for men — men of the world, too. It is not visionary.’
’I wish you would tell me what you think of the visions or apparitions of the Gods that are seen here. Is it all illusion? Tell me your thought.’
‘How difficult that is to answer! I suppose that, if love and faith are strong enough, they will always create the vibrations to which the greater vibrations respond, and so create God in their own image at any time or place. But that they call up what is the truest reality, I have never doubted. There is no shadow without a substance. The substance is beyond us, but under certain conditions the shadow is projected and we see it.’
‘Have I seen, or has it been dream?’
‘I cannot tell. It may have been the impress of my mind on yours, for I see such things always. You say I took your hand?’
‘Take it now.’
She obeyed, and instantly, as I felt the firm cool clasp, I heard the rain of music through the pines — the FlutePlayer was passing! She dropped it, smiling, and the sweet sound ceased.
‘You see! How can I tell what you have seen? You will know better when I am gone. You will stand alone then.’
‘You will not go — you cannot! I have seen how you have loved all this wonderful time. I believe it has been as dear to you as to me. And every day I have loved you more. You could not — you who are so gentle — you could not commit the senseless cruelty of leaving me when you have taught me to love you with every beat of my heart.
I have been patient — I have held myself in; but I must speak now. Marry me, and teach me. I know nothing. You know all I need to know. For pity’s sake, be my wife.’
I had not meant to say it; it broke from me in the firelit moonlight with a power that I could not stay. She looked at me with a discerning gentleness.
‘Is this fair? Do you remember how at Peshawar I told you I thought it was a dangerous experiment, and that it would make things harder for you? But you took the risk like a brave man, because you felt there were things to be gained — knowledge, insight, beauty. Have you not gained them?’
‘Then — is it all loss if I go?’
‘Not all. But loss I dare not face.’
“I will tell you this. I could not stay if I would. Do you remember the old man on the way to Vernag? He told me that I must very soon take up an entirely new life. I have no choice, though, if I had, I would still do it.’
There was silence, and down a long arcade, without any touch of her hand, I heard the music, receding with exquisite modulations to a very great distance; and between the pillared stems, I saw a faint light.
‘Do you wish to go?’
‘Entirely. But I shall not forget you, Stephen. I will tell you something. For me, since I came to India, the gate that shuts us out at birth has opened. How shall I explain? Do you remember Kipling’s “ Finest Story in the World ”? ’
‘Not fiction—true, whether he knew it or no. But for me the door has opened wide. First, I remembered piecemeal, with wide gaps; then more connectedly. Then, at the end of the first year, I met one day at Cawnpore an ascetic, an old man of great beauty and wisdom, and he was able by his own knowledge to enlighten mine. Not wholly — much has come since then; has come, some of it, in ways you could not understand now, but much by direct sight and hearing. Long, long ago I lived in Peshawar, and my story was a sorrowful one. I will tell you a little before I go.’
‘I hold you to your promise. What is there I cannot believe when you tell me? But does that life put you altogether away from me? Was there no place for me in any of your memories that has drawn us together now? Give me a little hope that, in the eternal pilgrimage, there is some bond between us, and some rebirth where we may meet again.’
‘I will tell you that also before we part. I have grown to believe that you do love me — and therefore love something which is infinitely above me.’
‘And do you love me at all? Am I nothing, Vanna — Vanna?’
‘My friend,’ she said, and laid her hand on mine. A silence and then she spoke, very low. ‘You must be prepared for very great change, Stephen, and yet believe that it does not really change things at all. See how even the Gods pass and do not change. The early Gods of India are gone, and Shiva, Vishnu, Krishna have taken their places and are one and the same. The Gods cannot die, nor can we, or anything that has life. Now I must go inside.’
The days that were left we spent in wandering up the Lidar River to the hills that are the first ramp of the ascent to the great heights. She sat, one day, on a rock, holding the sculptured leaves and massive seed-vessels of some glorious plant that the Kashmiris believe has magic virtues hidden in the seeds of pure rose embedded in the white down.
‘If you fast for three days and eat nine of these in the Night of No Moon, you can rise on the air light as thistledown and stand on the peak of Haramoukh. And on Haramoukh, as you know, it is believed that the Gods dwell. There was a man here who tried this enchantment. He was a changed man forever after, wandering and muttering to himself, and avoiding all human intercourse as far as he could. He said he had seen the Dream of the God!
‘Do you think he had seen anything?’
‘What do I know? Will you eat the seeds ? The Night of No Moon will soon be here.’
She held out the seed-vessels, laughing. I write that down; but how record the lovely light of kindliness in her eyes — t he almost submissive gentleness that yet was a defense stronger than steel? I never knew — how should I? — whether she was sitting by my side or heavens away from me in her own strange world. But always she was a sweetness that I could not reach, a cup of nectar that I might not drink, unalterably her own and never mine, and yet — my friend.
She showed me the wild track up into the mountains, where the pilgrims go to pay their devotions to the Great God’s shrine in the awful heights.
Above where we were sitting, the river fell in a tormented white cascade, crashing and feathering into spray-dust of diamonds. An eagle was flying above it, with a mighty spread of wings that seemed almost double-jointed in the middle, they curved and flapped so wide and free. The fierce head was outstretched with the rake of a plundering galley, as he swept down the wind, seeking his meat from God, and passed majestic from our sight.
Vanna spoke, and as she spoke I saw. What are her words as I record them? Stray dead leaves pressed in a book — the life and grace dead. Yet I record, for she taught me, what I believe the world should learn, that the Buddhist philosophers are right when they teach that all forms of what we call matter are really but aggregates of spiritual units, and that life itself is a curtain hiding reality, as the vast veil of day conceals from our sight the countless orbs of space. So that the purified mind, even while prisoned in the body, may enter into union with the Real and, according to attainment, see it as it is.
She was an interpreter because she believed this truth profoundly. She saw the spiritual essence beneath the lovely illusion of matter, and the air about her was radiant with the motion of strange forces for which the dull world has many names, aiming indeed at the truth, but falling, oh, how far short of her calm perception! She was of a House higher than the Household of Faith. She had received enlightenment. She believed because she had seen.
Next day our camp was struck, and we turned our faces again to Srinagar and to the day of parting. I set down but one strange incident of our journey, of which I did not speak even to her.
We were camping at Bijbehara, awaiting our house-boat, and the site was by the Maharaja’s lodge above the little town. It was midnight and I was sleepless— the shadow of the near future was upon me. I wandered down to the lovely old wooden bridge across the Jhelum, where the strong young trees grow up from the piles. Beyond it the moon was shining on the ancient Hindu remains close to the new temple; and as I stood on the bridge, I could see the figure of a man in deepest meditation by the ruins. He was no European. I could see the straight, dignified folds of the robes. But it was not surprising that he should be there, and I should have thought no more of it, had I not heard at that instant from the farther side of the river the music of the Flute. I cannot hope to describe that music to any who have not heard it. Suffice it to say that, where it calls, he who hears must follow, whether in the body or the spirit. Nor can I now tell in which I followed. One day it will call me across the River of Death, and I shall ford it or sink in the immeasurable depths, and either will be well.
But immediately I was at the other side of the river, standing by the stone Bull of Shiva where he kneels before the Symbol, and looking steadfastly upon me a few paces away was a man in the dress of a Buddhist monk. He wore the yellow robe that leaves one shoulder bare; his head was bare, also, and he held in one hand a small bowl like a stemless chalice. I knew I was seeing a very strange and inexplicable sight, — one that in Kashmir should be incredible, — but I put wonder aside, for I knew now that I was moving in the sphere where the incredible may well be the actual. His expression was of the most unbroken calm. If I compare it to the passionless gaze of the Sphinx, I misrepresent, for the Riddle of the Sphinx still awaits solution, but in this face was a noble acquiescence and a content which, had it vibrated, must have passed into joy.
Words or their equivalent passed between us. I felt his voice.
‘You have heard the music of the Flute?’
‘I have heard.’
‘ What has it given?’
‘A consuming longing.’
‘It is the music of the Eternal. The creeds and the faiths are the words that men have set to that melody. Listening, it will lead you to Wisdom. Day by day you will interpret more surely.’
‘I cannot stand alone.’
‘ You will not need. What has led you will lead you still. Through many births it has led you. How should it fail?’
‘What should I do?’
‘What should I shun?’
‘Sorrow and fear.'
‘What should I seek?’
‘And the end?’
‘Joy. Wisdom. They are the Light and Dark of the Divine.'
A cold breeze passed and touched my forehead. I was still standing in the middle of the bridge above the water gliding to the ocean, and there was no figure by the Bul1 of Shiva. I was alone. I passed back to the tents, with the shudder that is not fear but akin to death upon me. I knew that I had been profoundly withdrawn from what we call actual life, and the return is dread.
The days passed as we floated down the river to Srinagar.
On board the Kedarnath, now lying in our first berth beneath the chenars, near and yet far from the city, the last night had come. Next morning I should begin the long ride to Baramula, and beyond that barrier of the Happy Valley down to Murree and the Punjab. Where afterward? I neither knew nor cared. My lesson was before me to be learned. I must try to detach myself from all I had prized — to say to my heart that it was but a loan and a gift, and to cling only to the imperishable. And did I as yet certainly know more than the A B C of the hard doctrine by which I must live? Que vivre est difficile, O mon cœur fatigué! — An immense weariness possessed me — a passive grief.
Vanna would follow later with the wife of an Indian doctor. I believed she was bound for Lahore; but on that point she had not spoken certainly, and I felt that we should not meet again.
And now my packing was finished, and, so far as my possessions went, the little cabin had the soulless emptiness that comes with departure.
I was enduring as best I could. If she had held loyally to her pact, could I do less? Was she to blame for my wild hope that in the end she would relent and step down to the household levels of love?
She sat by the window — the last time I should see the moonlit banks and her clear face against them. I made and won my fight for the courage of words.
‘And now I’ve finished everything, thank goodness! and we can talk. Vanna — you will write to me?’
‘Once. I promise that.’
‘Only once? Why? I counted on your words.’
‘I want to speak to you of something else now. I want to tell you a memory. But look first at the pale light behind the Takht-i-Suliman.’
So I had seen it with her. So I should not see it again. We watched until a line of silver sparkled on the black water, and then she spoke.
‘Stephen, do you remember in the ruined monastery near Peshawar, how I told you of the young Abbot, who came down to Peshawar with a Chinese pilgrim? And he never returned.’
‘I remember. There was a dancer.’
‘There was a dancer. She was Lilavanti, and was brought there to trap him; but when she saw him she loved him, and that was his ruin and hers. Trickery he would have known and escaped. Love caught him in an unbreakable net, and they fled down the Punjab, and no one knew any more. But I know. For two years they lived together, and she saw the agony in his heart — the anguish of his broken vows, the face of the Blessed One receding into an infinite distance. She knew that every day added a link to the heavy Karma that was bound about the feet she loved, and her soul said, “Set him free,” and her heart refused the torture. But her soul was the stronger. She set him free.’
‘She took poison. He became an ascetic in the hills, and died in peace, but with a long expiation upon him.’
‘I am she.’
‘You! ’ I heard my voice as if it were another man’s. Was it possible that I
— a man of the twentieth century — believed this impossible thing? Impossible, and yet — What had I learned if not the unity of Time, the illusion of matter? What is the twentieth century, what the first? Do they not lie before the Supreme as one, and clean from our petty divisions? And I myself had seen what, if I could trust it, asserted the marvels that are no marvels to those who know.
‘You loved him?'
‘I love him.’
‘Then there is nothing at all for me.’
She resumed as if she had heard nothing.
‘I have lost him for many lives. He stepped above me at once; for he was clean gold, though he fell; and though I have followed, I have not found. But that Buddhist beyond Islamabad
— you shall hear now what he said. It was this. “The shut door opens, and this time he waits.” I cannot yet say all it means, but there is no Lahore for me. I shall meet him soon.’
‘Vanna, you would not harm yourself again?’
‘Never. I should not meet him. But you will see. Now I can talk no more. I will be there to-morrow when you go, and ride with you to the poplar road.’
She passed like a shadow into her little dark cabin, and I was left alone. I will not dwell on that black loneliness of the spirit, for it has passed — it was the darkness of hell, a madness of jealousy, and could have no enduring life in any heart that had known her But it was death while it lasted. I had moments of horrible belief, of horrible disbelief; but however it might be, I knew that she was out of reach forever. Near me — yes! but only as the silver image of the moon floating in the water by the boat, with the moon herself cold myriads of miles away. I will say no more of that last eclipse of what she had wrought in me.
The bright morning came, sunny as if my joys were beginning instead of ending. Vanna mounted her horse, and led the way from the boat. I cast one long look at the little Kedarnath, the home of those perfect weeks, of such joy and sorrow as would have seemed impossible to me in the chrysalis of my former existence. Little Kahdra stood crying bitterly on the bank; the kindly folk who had served us were gathered, saddened and quiet.
How dear she looked, how kind, how gentle her appealing eyes, as I drew up beside her! She knew what I felt, that the sight of little Kahdra, crying as he said good-bye, was the last pull at my sore heart. Still she rode steadily on, and still I followed. Once she spoke.
‘Stephen, there was a man in Peshawar, kind and true, who loved that Lilavanti, who had no heart for him. And when she died, it was in his arms, as a sister might cling to a brother; for the man she loved had left her. It seems that will not be in this life, but do not think I have been so blind that I did not know my friend.’
I could not answer — it was the realization of the utmost I could hope, and it came like healing to my spirit. Better that bond between us, slight as most men might think it, than the dearest and closest with a woman not Vanna. It was the first thrill of a new joy in my heart — the first, I thank the Infinite, of many and steadily growing joys and hopes that cannot be uttered here.
I bent to take t he hand she stretched to me; but even as our hands touched, I saw, passing behind the trees by the road, the young man I had seen in the garden at Vernag— most beautiful, in the strange mitre of his jeweled diadem. His Flute was at his lips, and the music rang out sudden and crystal-clear, as if a woodland god were passing to awaken all the joys of the dawn.
The horses heard, too. In an instant hers had swerved wildly, and she lay on the ground at my feet.
Days had gone before I could recall what had happened then. I lifted her in my arms and carried her into the rest-house near at hand, and the doctor came and looked grave, and a nurse was sent from the Mission Hospital. No doubt all was done that was possible; but I knew from the first what it meant and how it would be. She lay in a white quietness, and the room was still as death. I remembered with unspeakable gratitude later that the nurse had been merciful and had not sent me away.
So Vanna lay all day and all night; and when the dawn came again, she stirred and motioned with her hand, although her eyes were closed. I understood, and, kneeling, I put my hand under her head, and rested it against my shoulder. Her faint voice murmured at my ear.
‘I dreamed — I was in the pine wood at Pahlgam, and it was the Night of No Moon, and I was afraid, for it was dark; but suddenly all the trees were covered with little lights like stars, and the greater light was beyond. Nothing to be afraid of.’
‘And I looked beyond Peshawar, farther than eyes could see; and in the ruins of the monastery where we stood, you and I — I saw him, and he lay with his head at the feet of the Blessed One. That is well, is it not?’
‘And it is well I go? Is it not?’
‘It is well.’
A long silence. The first sun-ray touched the floor. Again the whisper:—
‘Believe what I have told you. For we shall meet again.’
I repeated, ‘We shall meet again.’
In my arms she died.
Later, when all was over, I asked myself if I believed this, and answered with full assurance, Yes.
If the story thus told sounds incredible, it was not incredible to me. I had had a profound experience. What is a miracle? It is simply the vision of the Divine behind nature. It will come in different forms according to the eyes that see, but the soul will know that its perception is authentic.
I could not leave Kashmir, nor was there any need. On the contrary, I saw that there was work for me here among the people she had loved, and my first aim was to fit myself for that and for the writing I now felt was to be my career in life. After much thought, I bought the little Kedarnath and made it my home, very greatly to the satisfaction of little Kahdra and all the friendly people to whom I owed so much.
Vanna’s cabin I made my sleepingroom, and it is the simple truth that the first night I slept in the place that was a Temple of Peace in my thoughts I had a dream of wordless bliss, and starting awake for sheer joy, I saw her face in the night, human and dear, looking upon me with that poignant sweetness which would seem to be the utmost revelation of love and pity. And as I stretched my hands, another face dawned solemnly from the shadow beside her, with grave brows bent on mine— one I had known and seen in the ruins at Bijbehara. Outside, and very near, I could hear the silver weaving of the Flute that in India is the symbol of the call of the Divine. A dream; but it taught me to live.